A few weeks ago I wrote about FX’s new TV series, American Horror Story, which centers on the Harmon family, who recently moved into a historic LA mansion with a sordid past: nearly all of the home’s inhabitants either have died or been killed in the house. Instead of transitioning to the afterlife, they remain imprisoned in the house as ghosts who can assume their former embodied selves at will.
Intrigued by the show’s title, I wanted to know what qualified the show’s horror story as “American” in character. I surmised that American Horror Story is less a the tale of things that go bump in the night and more a catalog of anxieties and problems that have plagued not only Americans, but especially American families, as well.
Season one’s finale confirmed and extended my mid-season critique. After watching all thirteen episodes, which constitute a discrete story line that won’t continue with season two , I can say this: the inaugural edition of American Horror Story implies that Americans past and present have been haunted by financial insecurities. Each home owner, from the first to the last, has encountered financial trouble because of personal habits, larger economic forces, or both. Moreover, home ownership exists at the center of these issues. The Harmons, for instance, had limited liquid assets; their cash resources were tied up in the house. Because the house couldn’t be sold, the Harmons were hindered in their ability to move to another location should life demand such a change (and it did).
While personal choices undoubtedly shape a family’s financial health and degree of mobility, so too, do economic downturns. The current recession provides a telling lesson regarding this point. Hope Yen of the Associate Press writes that currently “U.S. mobility is at its lowest point since World War II. New information from the Census Bureau highlights the continuing impact of the housing bust and unemployment on U.S. migration” . Mobility thus is an important indicator in the nation’s overall financial health. As Richard Florida notes in The Atlantic, “the mobile possess the resources and the inclination to seek out and move to locations where they pursue economic opportunity” .
American Horror story also addresses other endemic stresses of contemporary American families. School violence, teen depression and suicide, marital discord, and infidelity are recurring themes in the series. Moreover, many of these issues emerge due to dysfunctional family relationships between parents and children. Both Tate and Violet, the show’s central teen characters, are profoundly impacted by their respective parents’ marital problems. While Tate directs his rage outward towards others by maiming his stepfather and murdering his high school peers, Violet turns her emotional despair inward; she commits suicide.
Much of the first season, then, identified the multiple and seemingly endless conflicts in American life. The season finale, however, offered something different by addressing how American anxieties might be resolved or at least acknowledged in a productive way.
The Harmon family’s fate in the final episode thus symbolizes a potential resolution for long-standing as well as uniquely contemporary American anxieties and problems. Significantly, the Harmons have long regarded mobility—that is, moving to a new house—as the solution to their problems. Yet, one by one, each Harmon dies in the house and returns as a ghost, forever trapped between the bounds of the property.
The Harmons eventually find some sort of strange contentment in their new ghostly existence—that is, in being stuck as opposed to mobile. As ghosts, Vivian and Ben experience a functional, if not loving, husband-wife relationship for the first time in long time. Their relationship with Violet, their daughter, prospers, and Vivian even is reunited with her baby son, who supposedly was stillborn when he was delivered at the house. (It turns out the baby took one breath before passing away; since he died in the house, he became a ghost). This picture of family togetherness culminates in a touching Christmas-tree-decorating scene, which is so serene that it almost erases the turmoil, pain, and sheer physical violence that the family endured in the preceding weeks.
Julie Irwin Zimmerman notes in a response to Florida’s assessment of American immobility that stuckness does not always reflect financial hardship; stuckness also can indicate contentment in one’s geographic surroundings . The Harmons’ imprisonment in their home as ghosts, then, might indicate that resolving American anxieties has something to do with family unity as well as contentment with one’s surroundings.
American Horror Story clearly indicates that the Harmons’ contentment is a fiction. It is a projection of a past that never was and a future that can never really be. (The Harmon’s former maid, herself a ghost, alludes to this idea during the tree-decorating scene.)
The Harmons represent an American fiction—an ideal as opposed to a reality–whose cultural currency is in decline. Who, then, is the new America and where are they headed? Who will inherit the Harmons’ shattered past, and how will they forge a new life in their adopted home? Not coincidentally, the next homeowners are an American family of presumably Hispanic descent, but they don’t last one night in their newly purchased mansion. (Terrified by the legion of ghosts, they flee screaming under the cover of darkness.) I’m not one to be turned off by heavy-handed symbolism. (If I was, I wouldn’t have made it through even two episodes of this series.) So, while I’m sad that the show’s first story arc has come to a close, I like that American Horror Story ended its first chapter by addressing a complex American anxiety about immigration, ethnicity, whiteness, and cultural contamination.
What do you think about the season finale’s pronouncement regarding the “next generation” of America and how this unfolding future is being received?